Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, one of my favorite writers, whose twin strengths are an ear for language and an innate storytelling prowess, is not only prolific, but also versatile. Her books, whether they are poetry, collections of short stories, or fiction for adults or children, have an excellence that make me eagerly anticipate her next work. Currently, Divakaruni has debuted in the picture book category with the retelling of a Bengali folktale for children between the ages of five to eight. Grandma and the Great Gourd is an easy read, one that will immerse the reader into a traditional world, where a wise old woman outwits three enemies. The writer sticks to the familiar terrain of folktales, without any genre-bending, and she appears to have stayed true to the original version. As demanded by this story form, the writer uses simple, straightforward language that occasionally conveys musicality.
The old woman in the story is known as Grandma and Susy Pilgrim Waters, the illustrator, depicts her with a beautiful white dupatta over her head, which can be mistaken for long, lush hair. However, her portrayal works well, especially for those children who are afraid of the elderly. Grandma lives in a village, where she has the best vegetable patch. From her hut, she can hear the jungle sounds of the elephants’ walk, thup-thup-thup, or of slithering lizards, khash-khash. Is Grandma afraid? Not while she has her fiercely loyal dogs Kalu and Bhulu to guard her.
The arrival of her daughter’s letter sets in motion Grandma’s adventures. She decides to cut across the jungle to visit her. Then, sounding very American or sassy, she says, “What’s life without a little adventure?” Before leaving, she reminds her dogs to take care of her garden. When they tell her to call them if she gets into any trouble, the reader knows for sure she’ll need the canines’ help, as folktales often feature good characters (animals or humans) offering some kind of protection to people who are setting out on an adventure. When Grandma encounters a fox, it almost seems like a reverse Red Riding Hood story, except that Grandma favors white and the animal she meets is a fox, who makes his intentions to eat her clear at the outset. Soon the Western fairy tale dissipates from our minds. In spite of a heart that goes dhip-dhip, Grandma outfoxes the fox by telling him to wait until she returns from her daughter’s house, when she’ll be plumper.
Twice more she meets dangerous animals, a bear and a tiger, who like the fox, utter the same polite sentence, “How nice of you to arrive just when I’m so hungry!” This is in keeping with the folklore narrative tradition, where similar sounding phrases are scattered in the text. A scared Grandma tells the bear, and later the tiger, what she told the fox—they would be better off eating her after she returns from visiting her daughter. Grandma has a lovely time at her daughter’s house and, true to her word, becomes plumper after eating the delicious dishes offered to her. When Grandma is ready to return to her beloved dogs and her garden, she tells her daughter that the bear, the tiger, and the fox will be waiting for her. Her daughter comes up with an ingenious solution to the problem! The next few pages are fun as we follow Grandma traveling through the forest in a sealed giant gourd. There’s a bit of suspense when the fox comes across the gourd. However, the folktale has a happy ending since Grandma is the cleverest of them all.
Susy Pilgrim Waters, who has done murals for the New York City Public Library and other large scale works, makes her debut as a picture book illustrator with Grandma and the Great Gourd. Her illustrations in the book have a large-scale quality to them. In addition, they are vivid and colorful. The foliage in the cover picture is reminiscent of Indian fabric, but lovely Grandma surprisingly wears a long white dress or a kurta sans pajama. In the picture of Grandma’s first encounter with the tiger, the animal’s eye appears glassy and menacing, a wonderful touch. The pairing of Divakaruni’s narration with Waters’s illustrations enhances the story.
Divakaruni’s inspiration to write the story might have stemmed from the fact she first heard it from her grandfather and, later, recounted it to her sons. We feel the writer’s affection for the story, which gets transmitted to the reader. If a writer has fun with her work, can a reader not help getting engaged? When the last page is turned, readers will hanker for more Bengali folktales or, even, stories featuring a wise old woman.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.